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Oakland residents remain skeptical as federal oversight of police ends after 20 years

LeRonne L. Armstrong, Chief of Police, Oakland Police Department, stands near Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, right, as he delivers remarks during a press conference in Oakland, Calif.
Yalonda M. James
LeRonne L. Armstrong, Chief of Police, Oakland Police Department, stands near Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, right, as he delivers remarks during a press conference in Oakland, Calif.

A federal judge late Thursday ruled that the troubled Oakland Police Department (OPD) in California can take a big step toward ending nearly two decades of federal oversight created in the wake of a police corruption scandal in 2000.

U.S. District Judge William H. Orrick ruled that Oakland can now enter a one-year probationary period after meeting dozens of reform measures required in a consent decree that followed lawsuits related to abuses by members of a West Oakland police anti-gang unit who called themselves "The Riders."

Scores of victims in 2000 alleged the Riders routinely planted drugs on suspects and occasionally dished out beatings alongside falsified police reports, unlawful arrests and obstruction of justice. A rookie officer blew the whistle; 119 Oakland victims filed suit.

For nearly two decades a court-appointed monitor has overseen whether the OPD is meeting more than 50 reform mandated actions. The monitors reports are then reviewed by a judge.

While acknowledging there's much work still to do, the city's mayor Libby Schaaf and Oakland Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong welcomed the end of federal oversight as a sign of real progress.

"I committed to the city of Oakland that I was going to do everything I could to get this department into full compliance with all 51 tasks and that we wouldn't see regression under my leadership," the chief told NPR. "I believe that we've gotten there because we've worked even harder," he said, calling the news "a testament to the high level of accountability" now in place in Oakland.

But critics say OPD's progress is fragile. And they think the fact that basic reforms took 20 years as scandalous in itself.

"It's shameful. It's shameful that it has taken this long," says Rashidah Grinage with the Oakland Coalition for Police Accountability. "It only underscores the level of resistance to making these changes."

And those changes resulted from hard-fought and arduous pressure from lawyers and activists. "I would say [in] the first nine years there was zero progress," says lawyer Jim Chanin who along with fellow civil rights attorney John Burris were the lead attorneys who pursued the Riders case. "And then the last 10 they've come up to the point where they are now on the cusp of compliance."

Now with Oakland entering a yearlong probationary, or "sustainability," period to fully remove federal monitoring, police watch groups are worried the department will backslide.

"It scares me," says Cat Brooks the co-founder and executive director of the Oakland-based Anti-Police Terror Project. "It scares me that we're going to learn that they weren't ready when the federal oversight is done and they revert to the police department they have been."

The effectiveness of consent decrees is still up for debate

Across the country, federal consent decrees like the Oakland agreement remain a key oversight tool, despite limited evidence they're actually effective and useful. Critics say they're costly, often open-ended and end up benefiting court-appointed consultants and have little lasting impact.

There was optimism when Oakland's oversight first launched. Attorneys Chanin and Burris made it clear they wanted more than a settlement and money for their clients. Burris says they saw the rogue cop scandal as an opportunity to try to change an entrenched police culture of impunity in Oakland.

"For me, it was an opportunity to really put in place reforms that would affect people for a generation or more," Burris tells NPR.

At the start, he says, they wanted to "figure out where it was that these problems originated from ... We were interested in the force questions. What kind of force is being used? How is it being recorded? What kind of investigations were taking place in the internal affairs. And that was a big deal."

The police department has slowly checked off the federally-mandated reforms. The OPD improved its use of force policies and practices, worked to reduce racial profiling in traffic stops - and more. Today, among the 40 largest police departments in America, Oakland has among the lowest incidents of officer involved shootings - fatal and non-fatal. Allegations and payouts for brutality and excessive force are down dramatically.

"Unfortunately, it has taken 20 plus years to get it done and at a great deal of cost to everyone," Burris says.

Many still question whether the department's culture has changed

And what progress has been made is seen as highly precarious. The city has gone through 11 police chiefs in just over 20 years. Last year homicides here soared yet again and the mayor called for reversing planned cuts to the police.

Today, Oakland officers are leaving the department in record numbers, creating a staffing crisis. Debate rages over how to reduce gun violence, homicides and robberies. Four people have been murdered in a short period in one part of Oakland's Lake Merritt, a very popular gathering spot for families, runners and dog walkers.

"These senseless acts of violence of homicide will not be tolerated. We all deserve safe neighborhoods," says Oakland City Councilmember Nikki Fortunato Bas, who represents the area.

And there have been half a dozen new scandals since the Riders case, including in 2016 when multiple OPD officers were criminally charged for sexually abusing an underage girl and continued to exploit her after she turned 18. The city settled for nearly $1 million and officers were fired. An independent report ruled the department failed to adequately investigate those sex crimes – a violation of federal Task No. 5.

It's always been lawyers, journalists or victims who've exposed corruption and abuse within the OPD. And lawyer Chanin is worried that when federal monitors pack up, the department could easily regress.

"We've gone 20 years. They've got a perfect record of never discovering and remedying a single scandal on their own. So, I'm concerned about that. That's bad. It is worrisome," Chanin says.

Grinage, with the Coalition for Police Accountability, is worried, too. But she says the creation of the city's independent, civilian-run Police Commission just a few years ago is one key safeguard to protect against relapse since the Riders scandal. The commission has some investigative and oversight powers.

"Trust but verify, right," Grinage says. "We have a police commission that will verify that they are in compliance and will take the necessary steps to make sure that if they fall out of compliance, that there are repercussions."

Repercussions like when the commission fired police chief Anne Kirkpatrick in 2020. The former chief is now fighting her dismissal in court.

Police chief acknowledges that "Oakland is a challenging city"

"Oakland is a challenging city," chief Armstrong acknowledges. He's been police chief here for just over 15 months. "I think those 15 months where we haven't had a scandal or any issues come out of the department that would cause anybody to be concerned about our ability to remain in compliance [with the consent decree] and practice constitutional policing is the beginning of us building a new history," he says.

Activists who pushed for greater racial justice after George Floyd's murder at the knee of a Minneapolis policeman say any progress in Oakland was not the work of federal monitors or lawyers.

"It was the work of the people in the streets that forced OPD to shift," says activist Cat Brooks. She's not convinced OPD has changed much at all. Its culture of violence and recklessness, she alleges, runs too deep.

"If you go to East Oakland, they are still profiled and they are still harassed and tormented by OPD. So, right on, I'm glad they ticked off all the boxes. But they are not a police department that this community trusts or should trust," Brooks says.

After two decades, the last of the 51 reforms was improving racial disparities in disciplinary policy as more Black officers were facing discipline than their white counterparts.

For years Oakland had no policy to collect and break down basic discipline data based on race. "We now have a system in place where we can collect that data or we can track that data on an ongoing basis," chief Armstrong says. "And so what we'll be doing is continuous analysis. Looking at that data, trying to better understand if we see disparities, what are driving those disparities" and change policies as needed he says.

Attorney John Burris is cautiously optimistic the reforms will stick. "I'm hopeful that what we put in place will last beyond one year [of probation], that it will last a generation," he says, "otherwise to me it would not be worth it."

In the end, the city paid out some $11 million to 119 people to settle the class-action Riders corruption and brutality case. None of the four officers in the Riders scandal was convicted. One was acquitted of all charges. Two had hung juries. The DA later dropped the charges. They all left the department. Two went into private security. One became a cop in Southern California.

And the alleged ring-leader of the Riders gang, former officer Frank Vazquez? He skipped bail and fled the country on the eve of his trial. To this day formerofficer Vazquez remains a fugitive, his case open with the FBI.

Read the judge's order ruling that Oakland can enter a one-year "sustainability" period on June 1:

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.
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